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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dead Beat

When I saw who was exiting the 2002 Cad inside my shop door, I almost laughed. Before I go on, let me explain I have been cursed or blessed with an almost photographic memory for everything pertaining to events, people, and business dealings I have lived through. This particular gentleman, now exiting his Cad dressed in a dark gray business suit, had been in his early twenties back in 1984 when I last saw him. I will label him Dead Beat for the remainder of this post.

Mr. Beat had owned an old 1965 Chrysler with a 440 engine, and one of those ancient four barrel carbs I used to rebuild on a regular basis. When he had it towed in the first time, I showed him after a few moments someone had filled his fuel tank with water. This required a gas tank draining, carburetor overhaul, and new fuel filter. Needing the car that day, he refused to let me order a locking gas cap, I told him would be a necessity, because he had an enemy living around him. Dead promised he’d find a locking gas cap as soon as I finished. He came in the next week, all smiles, to let me know how happy he was with the way his Chrysler was running. I checked, and he had not put a locking gas cap on. Dead promised to get one right away. The following month, the Chrysler came in on the hook, full of water once more, and no locking gas cap. Mr. Beat was not happy, but he gave me the go ahead to redo the job. This time I kept the car until the locking gas cap came in for it. Dead Beat paid by check as he had done before and left. Check bounced, and Dead Beat was no where to be found: one of only two people to ever get away with stiffing me on a bill.

Here he was, exiting his Cad, all smiles and sure no way in hell I’d remember him. Oh contraire, Mon Ami.

“Hi,” Mr. Beat said amiably, gesturing at the Cad. “I have a check engine light coming on in my Cad, and I’d like to get it checked out.”

“I’d be glad to,” I reply, leading the way into my office, and checking the calendar. “I can get you in tomorrow to find out why the light’s on.”

“Fine,” Dead agreed happily. “Can I drop it off when you open?”

“Sure, let me get your name, address, and phone number.”

Dead Beat gives me the data, and starts walking out the door.

“Just a second, Mr. Beat,” I call him back in, having quickly extracted the invoice, with stapled on bounced check from twenty-three years ago out my drawer. I hand it to him. “This will have to be taken care of first, along with a fifty dollar charge for the time you allowed the bounced check to remain unpaid.”

“I…I…” Mr. Beat is stunned, his face begins draining of all color as he looks from the invoice to me.

Now folks, I know the slick way to have handled this would have been to check the Cad out; and somehow come out of the transaction with all the money owed for both the present day repair as well as the past, but I ain’t that slick. Sometimes you have to get your enjoyment of life the old fashioned way. The look on Dead Beat’s mug was worth the old bill’s value.

“I’m not paying this,” Dead stated, handing me the old invoice back hesitantly; because the gears are turning in his head, reminding him I now knew where he lived, and he didn’t know what that little factoid would mean.

“Well, I’m afraid you’ll not be getting your Cad fixed here until you do,” I reply, looking at the calendar. “I have your address just in case you change your mind. Get out, and have a nice day.”

Closing the circle on these little anecdotes using the Klingon method of serving it up cold, is probably not the proper way of handling these situations. If you’re not an old curmudgeon with all your bills paid off, it’s best to laugh at my post, but disregard my philosophy. Oh sweet Jesus, it was so good though. :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Oh joy, my favorite Disney Truck visited for diagnostics and routine maintenance today. It must stay inside my shop overnight again. I will take precautions upon entering tomorrow morning. This vehicle could inspire a nightmarish story, where the creepy nick-knacks on it pull free of the body, and come after the heroic mechanic. I know just where I can find one of those. :)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

High Hopes

Oh boy… I’m thinking as the 1967 Mercury drove up into my shop. A very good customer had phoned me earlier to let me know her son was dropping off a ‘cherry’ old Mercury he’d just bought. A quick look at this ‘cherry’ Merc, and I’m thinking although I had seventeen years on this old clunk, it certainly outdistanced me in mileage. When I’m in better shape than the vehicle a customer drives, I always recommend the elephant graveyard for the poor thing, rather than torturing it with stop-gap repairs.

“Hi, Bernie,” the young man said with a big smile. I will call my optimistic customer High Hopes for the remainder of this post. He was really proud. “What do you think?”

I’m thinking you should have let me see it before you bought it, High. High is in his mid-twenties; and he grew up in Oakland, so he didn’t fall off the vegetable truck yesterday. I liked him, and knew he would probably be upset when I rained on his parade. First, I cringed and went right to the basics.

“How much did you pay for it, High?” I asked reluctantly.

“Only a thousand,” young Hopes tells me enthusiastically.

“Good,” I remark, knowing this lesson could have been much more expensive. “Return it to the guy, and see if you can get eight hundred dollars of your money back. He may take it since he can make a quick two hundred, and then scam someone else. If…”

“No way,” High cuts me off in shock. “This is a classic. They’re going for…”

“Easy… easy there, High,” I gesture for calm. I look up at the clock, and make a snap decision. “Go have a seat in the office, and give me forty-five minutes. Keep an open mind, when I explain my reasoning, after I gather some facts. Believe this: I’m not trying to make light of this situation. I’m trying to save you a lot of money and pain.”

Young Hopes looked at me suspiciously, as if I were trying to obtain the vehicle for myself (I’d rather open up one of my major arteries). He finally nods reluctantly and goes into my office. I sigh and pat the poor old Merc sympathetically, and get into the driver’s seat. The Merc bucket seat is now made up of folded over cardboard to keep the seat springs from entering the driver’s body in extremely painful ways. Closer to an hour than forty-five minutes later, I take my list into the office. High looks up from a magazine he was reading almost fearfully. I gesture for young Hopes to follow me out to his gem. For the next half hour, I pointed out all the flaws, which were expensive and fixable. Then, I spent another twenty minutes showing him the flaws, which were non-existent at any price.

“You must think I’m an idiot,” High says dejectedly, the dawn of nuclear winter appearing on the horizon for his plans of cruising on the strip in his ‘cherry’ Merc.

“Nope,” I state without reservation. “Try my earlier advice with the prior owner, and do it with an ingratiating smile on your face. Don’t go the accusation route, or you’ll end up with no money and in jail for assault.”

Young Hopes laughed, and nodded his head.

“If that doesn’t work, start listing pictures of it in every free flea market paper you can find. You might be able to get your money back if you can find someone with this same car, looking for a part this one still has. Try Craig’s List on the computer too. Sometimes…”

“Hey, what if I found someone with this model trying to…” High sees the look of annoyance flooding over my countenance, and pauses. “What…”

“Someone with a showroom condition Merc like this might need something off this one,” I explain patiently. “You don’t buy another one of these in hopes of making this one into showroom condition. If the rust were any thicker on the driver’s side floorboards, you’d be driving this beauty around like Fred Flinstone.”

“Okay… okay,” High takes a deep breath. “I’ll go see if I can get some of my money back.”

“Let me see the next one before you buy it, okay?”

“I will. Thanks… I think.”

“You’re welcome… I think,” I reply, getting another laugh out of High before he gets into the Merc and drives away. I go into the office to fill out the paperwork for his Mom. She won’t be happy either. :)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Now Voyager

I was working on a 1999 Ford Ranger when I heard my motion detector go off as a vehicle stopped inside the shop. It was a middle nineties Plymouth Voyager I recognized, although it had been at least six months since I saw the Plymouth last. A well-dressed man in his early forties exited the Voyager. I recognized him too. He had brought his Voyager in for a diagnostic check to determine why it was stalling and hard to start, intimating the whole time I was ripping him off with a diagnostic fee like all the others. Apparently, he had three other shops have a go at finding out what his problem was with the Plymouth, all to no avail. I received this news in detail at the time; but since I tend to tune out after hearing how I’m ripping off a customer I haven’t even met before, the details elude me at the moment. To my surprise, the man I will identify as Now Voyager for this post, decided to have me check out his vehicle even though by then I didn’t want to at any price.

After a detailed diagnostic scan, and some hands on poking around, the main two culprits causing the six trouble codes stored in the computer were the downstream oxygen sensor, and the cam angle sensor. Fuel pressure, and a myriad of other tests I won’t bore you with gave normal readings. He also had an ABS brake code unrelated to his problem, which was coming on due to a corroded connector near the battery. Now listened to my explanation why it would be important for me to erase all the codes, and then have him drive the SUV for a week before rechecking what new or old codes showed up. This narrows down the inadvertent codes from the solid troublemakers. Once he knew the retest was free, Mr. Voyager was all for it.

Now drove in after a week with a detailed log of stall-outs and hard starts I had asked him to keep. The ABS was fixed, because he had not seen any other indication of an ABS trouble light, and the slight pulsation he had felt when applying the brake was gone. Mr. Voyager had two repeaters, the cam angle sensor and oxygen sensor, which I explained would have to be done first before going any further. At this point, Now wanted an iron clad guarantee everything on his vehicle would be in showroom condition after I fixed these two items. I told him what he was demanding was impossible. He decided to keep on going with it until the Plymouth screwed him up real good, or he found a shop to guarantee the impossible. So, I’m less than enthused as I recognize my good buddy, Now, again in my shop, and up to no good I’ll wager.

I greet Now as he comes around the front of his Plymouth toward me. He hands me a receipt instead of talking - always a bad sign. Reading over the invoice, it appeared some enterprising garage I will not mention, had replaced everything on the Plymouth but the oxygen sensor and cam angle sensor. The invoice was missing the key ingredients to legally operating in the state, such as the shop’s state license number, etc. It didn’t even have the shop’s address and phone number on it, let alone an area for writing an estimate with customer’s signature. I handed the receipt back to him with a shrug.

“As you can see, I spent a lot of money,” Now said through clenched teeth, when I didn’t respond to the magnificence of his receipt verbally.

“So, how’s it working for you now?” I asked, not in the least bit interested.

“It still stalls, and is even harder to start,” Mr. Voyager answers, as his voice rises a few decibels, “and I want to know why!”

“Probably because you let this shop replace everything except the oxygen sensor and cam angle sensor,” I reply amiably; because other than the guess I just gave him, Now was getting nothing from me.

He tries comically to hand me the keys. “Here, I want you to check it.”

“No, Sir, the statute of limitations has run out on that. You decided to ignore my diagnosis; which is your right, and go somewhere else to get your vehicle worked on. I suggest taking it back to them. I imagine you demanded a guarantee, so now’s the time to cash in on it.”

“They… they’re not there anymore,” Now’s voice drops down to a whisper.

“I would suggest taking it to the dealer, or another shop,” I suggest earnestly; because while I take no comfort in other people’s woes, I have no empathy for stupidity. “They will have to check it over to make sure this other place didn’t add to your troubles.”

“You should do the diagnostic over for me for free,” Now states with gusto, thinking he’s in a Walmart arguing for customer rights.

“Not going to happen,” I state more firmly. “Have a nice day, and good luck with your vehicle.”

Now starts to launch into his mantra, but I hold up a hand to dissuade him from further dialogue.

“Not going to happen,” I repeat.

Now gets it finally, and leaves in a huff. Better than leaving with help. Ah… Monday… :)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

All Set

I noticed a man, probably in his forties, wearing a gray business suit, out in front of my shop checking it out as if he were lost. He looked a little out of place too, and I was still waiting on parts for the Honda Accord torn down in my shop bay. When I approached him, the man immediately walked toward me with a smile and his hand out. I shook hands with him.

“I thought maybe you were lost,” I offered.

“No, I’m looking for a shop like yours in this area. How’s business?”

“Pretty good,” I answered, wondering if he was somebody from the City of Oakland.

“How long you been here?”

“Over thirty years, twenty-five as owner this next April,” I’m curious now where this is headed. I’m always waiting for the next city inspection.

“You look near retirement age,” the man observed with a friendly smile.

“What gave me away, the gray hair, or the permanent cynical look, branded onto my face?” I smile back. “Seriously, I probably won’t retire unless something unexpected happens.”

“Would you be interested in selling your place,” the man chuckled at my little joke, and got down to business.

“Sure, 1.5 million dollars, cash,” I answer immediately.

He laughed in earnest then. After a moment, he shook his head. “You’ll never get that much for it.”

“I guess I’ll have to keep on workin’ then.”

“Do you have a mortgage on the place?” The man asked, glancing around inside the door.

“Nope, it’s paid off.”

“You could be set pretty well if you sold the place,” he told me. “Can I leave my card in case you change your mind?”

“Sure, I’ll give it to my wife. If I assume room temperature under a car or truck in the near future, I’ll leave word for her to give you a call.”

He laughed and handed me his card, before leaving. It only had his name and phone number on it. Maybe my wife will have to do a little checking on this guy if I join the other side of the Ghost Hunting equation. :)

Monday, September 10, 2007


“I know what you’re going to tell me,” the middle-aged man said with a sigh, getting out of his lime green Volkswagen.

“If you’ve guessed ‘I don’t work on European cars’ then you’d be right,” I reply with a smile.

The surprised look on his face told me that was not the phrase he expected.

“A good customer of yours recommended you to me. He told me you worked on everything,” the man argued, and put his hands on his hips to show his pique I guess.

“I’m sorry, but he was wrong. What’s his name, and I’ll call him. If he’s a good customer, I’d like to avoid any more misunderstandings.”

“Ah… I think… it was Tim, or Tom…”

Wow, that narrows it down. It sounds like the old name drop without a name.

“Look,” he goes on as I stay silent while he searches for my imaginary customer’s name, “I live just over on Adeline. It would be really convenient if I could bring my VW here.”

“I’m sure it would, but I don’t work on European cars. The big sign on my building front states Asian and American Car and Truck Repair. If you have one of those, I’d love to work on it.”

“I have a Ford Explorer,” he says, brightening. “You’ll work on the VW if I let you work on the Ford?”

“No,” I answer, keeping my tone even. “I’d work on the Ford, but not the VW. Look, it’s just like if you took your VW to a European car repair shop. They won’t work on your Ford because it’s not within their level of expertise.”

“Why can’t I get my vehicles done at the same place? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“If one was Asian instead of Euro, you could. I’ll get you the address for a place on East 9th that does European cars,” I offer, stepping toward the office.

“How much do they charge?”

“I don’t know. I’m not affiliated with them. They’re just the closest Euro repair I know of. You can call and tell them what your problem is, and they’ll tell you what the diagnostic charge is.”

“Forget it!” The man jumps into his Limeade VW, and backs out.

I only have time to sit down in the office when Limeade shoots back in the door. I again greet the man as he launches out of the driver’s side seat.

“I want one of your business cards,” he demands. “I’m going to report you to the Better Business Bureau.”

“For what?” I start laughing in earnest. “Not working on VW’s? Never mind, I’ll get you the card.”

After I fetch a card for him, he’s still perplexed at what I think is so funny.

“You seem to think this is some kind of joke,” he said, looking at my card.

“I don’t think you’re joking, but I think it’s funny. Anyway, let me know how it works out for you. I’ll add something else for your complaint: I’m not working on your Ford, or any other vehicle you ever own.”

“Tha…that’s discrimination!” The man accuses.

“Good luck to you,” I wave at him as I walk back in the office. “Don’t forget to let me know how your complaint progresses.”

He drives off after staring angrily at my office door for a few moments.

There must be a full moon tonight. :)